A couple of articles from the January 1 issue of the Forward, written by friends, caught my attention over Shabbat. The first is this piece by Ethan Tucker that uses the recent British court ruling on the definition of Jewish peoplehood to explore the dueling tensions within Jewish life of what it means to be Jewish: is it fundamentally what we might refer to as an ethnic identification, or is it more religious in nature? Ethan reminds us that the conquest of Alexander the Great, and the introduction of the possibility of an identity for Jews separate from a Jewish identity, had profound and lasting reverberations for the rest of Jewish history: “Hellenistic culture cleaved religion from ethnicity and allowed anyone born anywhere to enter into a Greek way of life. This shift plunged Jews into an identity crisis from which we have never fully recovered. Are we a people? A religion? Some combination of both?”

Closely paraphrasing my own views on the subject, Ethan argues that it has to be both, that we cannot let go of the lived rhythms of the people, nor the reflective ideas of the faith:

Judaism as a religion benefits from Jewish peoplehood and the sense of warmth, belonging and unconditional love and commitment that come with it. At the same time, simply distilling Jewishness down to a content-free ethnic categorization determined by one’s mother threatens to trivialize and marginalize any sense of Jewish purpose and mission. Only a concept of Judaism that sees a religious mission embedded within an ethnic group — albeit with the possibility of both entry and exit at the margins — can do justice to the richness of Jewish history.

Now that the British court case is decided, Jews, as an ancient people and faith, must even more urgently return to a basic question: Do we share a future as a result of our common ethnic past, or is our common past irrelevant if we don’t share a religious vision for the future?

Ethan captures a major tension within Jewish life today and insists, as I do, that we cannot exist without it. Jewish identity cannot be reduced to biology or genetics–in fact, these things are immaterial as far as Jewishness goes. But one also cannot be Jewish simply because one is compelled by the ideas of Jewish life. You have to make an existential commitment, you have to join the community. Unfortunately, in our world, we have few if any analogous terms, so this can be a difficult thing for people to grasp. Ethan does a good job of making it clear.

The other piece in the Forward is this one by Jay Michaelson, about the myth of authenticity in Jewish life. Jay argues that authenticity is an historically-constructed idea, something that never truly existed.

Authenticity isn’t about form, it’s about getting to what matters. “It’s not, of course, that we want to be the shtetl Jews of Anatevka,” he writes, “only that we continue to see them as the ‘real’ ones, and the rest of us, well, as a kind of hybridization, or adaptation. Thus there persists in the American Jewish imagination an anxiety of inauthenticity — that someone, somewhere, is the real Jew, but I’m not it.” Progressive Jews need to believe in themselves more, and Orthodoxy has to make sure it has a soul and isn’t simply rote performance. In sum:

“Meaningful authenticity isn’t about an old religious form or a Yiddish pun… It’s when a religious, literary or cultural form — old, new or alt-neu — speaks to the depths of what it is to be human.

“If a guitar-playing, meditating female rabbi resonates more with the souls of her followers than does a nigun-singing, Talmud-learning male one, she is the more authentic spiritual leader. If ecstatic prayer speaks to and from the spirit more than a supposedly consistent rationalism, then it, too, is more authentic, notwithstanding the howls of the secularist. Authenticity isn’t about form, it’s about getting to what matters.”

This is good stuff, and I certainly believe it. But here’s what I fear: Most people simply don’t approach life with this level of sophistication. Jay rightly insists that this is more than an issue of simple individual preference. It should involve real discernment and soul-searching to arrive at a point of “carefully considered internal coherence.” I totally agree. But I don’t think that we live now, or have ever lived, in a culture in which all the people reading a column like this are capable of this kind of intellectual-spiritual heavy lifting. Despite the fact that most Jews are college-educated (or, more likely, because they are college-educated), they aren’t going to do this work, either because they don’t know how or won’t make the time. It’s much easier living with an ossified authenticity.

That, to me, is the true challenge for thoughtful progressive Judaism today. Yes, there are havura communities that have successfully raised a generation of committed, thoughtful, liberal Jews. But they are far from the norm. Orthodoxy, on the other hand, has grown and seems poised to continue to do so, the economic crisis notwithstanding.

At the end of the day, the biggest thing one loses in stepping out of the Orthodox community is the ability to speak in terms of hiyyuv, obligation. Even if many Orthodox Jews don’t follow through on their obligations, they nonetheless submit to the sense of obligation, and can sustain an entire discourse and worldview around it–one which is accessible by the amcha and the elite alike. Progressive Judaism, for my money anyway, hasn’t yet shown me what a large self-sustaining community of non-hiyyuv-oriented people looks like. Perhaps that’s what it needs to have the self-confidence that comes when you tell yourself you’re authentic.

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